The Tower of London and its Jewish history

Site acted as both haven and prison for medieval community members.

Tower of London  (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
Tower of London
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
The rich history of the Tower of London tells the story of a fortress, a palace, as well as a place of law, torture, incarceration and doom throughout medieval British History.
But new research has revealed that the Tower of London also served as a place of refuge for the Jewish community during violent pogroms, as their prison when they refused to pay taxes, and even as their port of exile when they were expelled from England in the year 1290.
The information, presented at the tower last week in a lecture titled “New perspectives on the Tower and the medieval Jewish community,” shows how the Jews had a much deeper connection to the monument than previously known.
The curator of the collections at the tower, Sally Dixon-Smith of Historic Royal Palaces – an independent charity that manages some of the United Kingdom’s unoccupied royal palaces – spent three months analyzing Treasury documents, looking into the links between the Jewish community and the structure.
She found that London’s early Jewish residents took refuge in the tower during particularly violent pogroms in 1189, 1264 and 1272.
In 1189, when King Richard I (known as Richard the Lionheart) was being crowned, antisemitic riots broke out after the Jewish community attempted to bring a gift to the king. A substantial number of Jews were killed leading many to take refuge in the tower.
Later, in 1216, it became a place of preventative protection for the Jews during the coronation of King Henry III.
During one of the more bloody pogroms of the later part of the 13th century, Jews stayed in the tower for several months.
“The tower should be more widely acknowledged as a key site in England’s medieval Jewish heritage,” Dixon-Smith said. “Medieval Jewish history and the history and development of the tower are inextricably linked... The position of the Jewish community is central to any understanding” of medieval England.
During the late 12th and 13th century, Jewish Londoners also came to the tower to seek justice. “Royal ‘ownership’ of Jews meant the Crown used the tower and its officials to exercise direct control over them,” Dixon-Smith explained. “Jews were considered royal property... they were under the direct jurisdiction of the constables.” For this reason, the Jewish community had privileged access to the royal courts located in the tower.
In 1238, when sheriffs in London were investigating murders involving Jews, they made it clear that these cases must go straight to the royal court at the tower, which points at the value placed on Jewish lives by the Crown at that time.
But at the same time, during this period, Jews and Christians were taxed separately “and royal protection and access to the royal court did come at a price,” explained Dixon- Smith. Jews were taxed more heavily and a good portion of the money collected from them went toward a massive expansion of the tower, including the digging of the moat and the building of Traitors’ Gate.
A third of a Jew’s wealth could be taken at any time, and those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay were imprisoned in the tower, said Dixon- Smith, meaning numerous Jews over time had been imprisoned there.
Later in the 13th century, during the infamous blood libels, 91 Jewish men were incarcerated in the tower. During a 1278 coin-clipping scandal – where silver was shaved from the edge of coins – 600 Jewish household heads, most of whom were innocent, were incarcerated – and some were later executed.
By July 1290, when the general expulsion of Jews was ordered by Edward I for November 1, the tower served as the point of exit for Jews who traveled out of England via the Thames River. Were that not bad enough, the exiled Jews were charged a deportation tax by the constable of the tower.
From that point, Jews were not allowed to live in England until the 1650s, under Oliver Cromwell.
Following the publication of this research, Rupert Gavin, the chairman of Historic Royal Palaces, announced that the Tower of London will be viewed as “a key site” in England’s medieval Jewish history and the organization will incorporate the newly understood Jewish links into some of its tours as well as into its school education program.
“Schoolchildren from all over the country can come and get an insight into how a minority group worked so productively within medieval England, which I think has a lot of lessons for the way that we work as a society today,” Gavin said.
He said he was also looking at options for a “living embodiment of the Jewish presence” at the Tower.
“This is important academic work but it is practical as well. In our telling of the story of the tower, we have tended to forget and ignore this important part,” Gavin said. “The significance of the work is that this now enables us to go back to our core story, which informs everything around this building.”